Queen Madeleine

A short while ago, I commissioned some Brennus art, as a kind of Christmas present to myself (and all fans). Now it’s complete, made by the crocodiley Mahasim:

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MageLife on Amazon

Some of you may remember when I presented MageLife by my friend, Tempest, here on this blog.

Well, Tempest has finally completed his serial, edited it and put it up on Amazon for just 2,99! Check it out by this link. And check out the free serial version in case you haven’t yet.

Blurb (courtesy of yours truly):

For five years, Tristan has been preparing himself. For five years, he studied the secrets of the Arcane Art that lives in his very blood and bones. Now, he has become a Mage, a wielder of awesome power, capable of creating and destroying life. The power drawn from the very fabric of reality at his fingertips.
Thus he is assigned to a post in his home town which is in need of the assistance that only a true master of the Arcane can provide. And his first great working shall be…
Fixing the local irrigation system. And taking care of a premature girl mage. Oh, and his superior is a jerk.
Such is the Life of a Mage

B011.4 Monkey Family

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Shortly after the two would-be assassins (it kind of weirded me out that I’d had to deal with two groups to whom that applied to in one night) left, I caught two familiar smells from upwind.

Should I leave? No, she’ll probably cooperate with them, if only to keep up appearances and they’ll recognise me instantly. I sighed and leaped up into the bedroom – only to stare down the barrel of a shotgun. My eyes moved up to Sara Jane Saltston’s face. She looked half scared and half mad.

“You didn’t run away,” I said wryly, getting my first good look at her in the moonlight. My first thought was ‘stern librarian from hell’. She wasn’t anything like beautiful, or even pretty, but… attractive. Her face was sharp, with high cheekbones and very slim, pale lips. Her grey eyes were sharp and alert, with a carefully restrained touch of fear and uncertainty in them. Her long hair was open and unkempt right now, and she was wearing a dark green, ankle-length silk nightgown and fluffy slippers. At an inch or two below six feet, she was taller than average, though still quite a bit shorter than me.

“Who are you? Why’re you here?” she asked, her hands very still.

She might have military experience. Or perhaps she used to be a supervillain herself, and those weapons are her own work, I guessed, though that was admittedly a big leap.

I opened my mouth to reply, and she flinched back – almost pulling the trigger. I froze, before I realised that I still had the monkey up.

Smart move, stupid. Of course she’s going to be nervous and jumpy with that mug in front of her. I closed my mouth again and pulled the monkey back in, hoping she wasn’t going to shoot me in the head while I was actually vulnerable to it.

“Good evening, Ma’am. My name’s Kevin. I’d taken a stroll through the night,” I said in as soothing a voice as I could without seeming to be patronising her. “And I noticed those two assailants breaking into your house.   I decided to investigate – and I am sorry for trespassing in your home – and then engage them when it seemed like they were going to cause you harm.”

Father would probably be proud – nothing I’d said was untrue, there were no gaps or leaps in logic (by cape standards) and it completely omitted mention of everything I didn’t want mentioned.

The maybe-metahuman woman relaxed, lowering her gun (but still holding it so she could easily snap it back up and shoot) as she took a deep, calming breath. “I… Well, I guess that makes sense. Thank you. Really, thank you very much, Kevin,” she replied. “You don’t happen to know who those t-“

She was cut off when a clear, strong voice called out for me to stand down. I recognised Camille’s voice, and decided to comply for now. No use antagonising my daughter’s beau.

***

A few minutes later, I was sitting on an arm chair in the living room, with the lawyer and the two heroes interviewing us on what had happened.

I was rather concerned, really, that only Vek and Dearheart were present, but I doubted that me asking them about their lack of numbers in front of what they probably considered a simple civilian victim, so I kept my mouth shut with the intention of confronting them later on. I still couldn’t help but be concerned. Hennessy was most likely still off the roster, recuperating (I felt a weird, cold tightness in my chest, when I thought about how tired she’d looked after our confrontation), but the others should have been available.

My experience gave me a sneaking suspicion, but I refrained from voicing it, instead focusing on answering Vek’s questions without giving away what I’d really been up to.

“So you were just… taking a stroll, in a three-piece suit… and you just happened to come across two unknown supervillains breaking into a house?” she asked, her face as expressive as… well, a goat’s. Her voice was disbelieving, though.

I shrugged. “My power protects my clothing and compensates for restrictions in my natural movement, so I can fight as well in a suit as I can in spandex. And I was on my way to meet a lady, besides.” I winked at her, though that mostly just made Camille snort derisively.

“You’re in the city for less than two days and you already have a date?” Vek asked in surprise. She almost bleated the sentence.

My mouth quirked up in a smile. “No, not a date. At least, not that kind of date. I happen to have quite a few old friends in the city.”

She nodded. “Alright, what can you tell me about the two villains?” she asked.

I cleared my throat and started to explain. “I identified them mostly by smell. One, I dubbed Brimstone. Her arms are apparently made of volcanic rock. She can generate very powerful fire blasts. My paranoid nature suggests that she may be capable of generating lava in some form. And she is definitely tougher than would be natural for a woman of her build, perhaps up to paragon levels, considering how easily she shrugged off my restrained blow. She seemed calm, in control of herself and was reasonable enough to abandon her goal when confronted by me.”

Vek nodded, then motioned for me to continue with one snake; most of her snakes were playing with the little boy, who seemed largely unconcerned about the situation and more interested in trying to tie the snakes into knots, while his mother looked worriedly at him.

“I call the other one ‘Smelly’, mostly because her smell was quite weird and unfamiliar to me – definitely unnatural. The way they moved, she was the brute of the pair, and she took a surprise shot from Mrs Saltston’s weapon,” I threw a questioning look at her gadget. “About which I am quite curious, actually.”

The woman, who’d put on a rather more concealing robe over her nightie, gave me an amicable look. She’d warmed up considerably, as soon as the heroes arrived and the danger was over. “I specialise in superhuman law, specifically in working in providing legal defense for various cowls,” she explained. Camille gave her a dirty look, which was oddly comforting. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who got those from her. But she did restrain herself from commenting, so I guess I still rated special treatment, all things considered. “A few years ago, I represented Gunnery and helped her work out a very favourable deal. Part of her payment to me was a set of advanced weaponry for the purpose of self-defense.” She turned to look at Vek. “All registered and properly secured, of course.”

Vek nodded, but I had another question.

“Don’t gadgets like that usually require constant care by their makers?” Which was the reason why Cartastrophy had to keep going to Elouise’s garage and perform the upkeep for her cars.

“Gunnery specialised in reliable personal weaponry, which was one of the main reasons why the judges were willing to strike a deal with her despite her crimes. She’s creating advanced weaponry for the military and several other agencies now.” There was a note of pride in her voice.

“Quite so,” Vek said with what might have been a frown – it was quite annoying, father’s lessons on how to read animal-like metahumans were not quite as vivid in my mind as the normal ones – and they hadn’t been as extensive, either. “Move on, please.” She didn’t seem to like the subject very much – perhaps she’d been involved in capturing Gunnery, only to see her get out of the punishment she deserved in exchange for services rendered.

“Well, she took the shot, and later got up after I threw her around a bit. She didn’t display any powers beyond her enhanced toughness, but that may well be simply because she didn’t get the chance to. She didn’t talk at all. After I removed them from the bedroom, I told them to end the fight and leave instead of fighting me, and they complied, leaving.”

“You simply convinced them to leave? You didn’t offer them anything?”

“I ‘offered’ not to beat them up. There is no doubt in my mind that I could’ve taken them down, I just couldn’t be sure that I would also be able to prevent collateral damage, or defend Mrs Saltston and her son.” That got me a smile from the lawyer.

Stars above, I was just recently planning to interrogate woman, now she’s looking at me like I’m a hero. It made me feel quite uncomfortable, to be quite honest.

It didn’t help that, the whole time, Camille had been looking at me with a contemplative look. Contemplative. Not hostile, or murderous. Why? What changed? It couldn’t just be me having saved this family – she was already like this when she arrived, and she didn’t even make any accusations. It was even weirder than the situation with Saltston.

Vek nodded. “Well, I am quite grateful you happened to stumble across this, Mr Paterson,” she said in a calmer tone of voice. She then looked at Saltston. “Madam, the police will be here in a minute. They’ll provide protection and investigate this matter.”

Saltston nodded, though she seemed dissatisfied. I would be too, if I was a Syndicate agent who was about to get a police investigation to deal with. That couldn’t be good for business.

“Thank you for your help, Vek,” she said, then she got up and turned to me. “And you as well, Aap Oordra,” she continued, holding out a slender, perfectly manicured hand.

I raised an eyebrow as I took her hand, gently squeezing it as we shook. “You recognised me?”

She smirked. “I was a fan, back in the day. You may not remember me, but I attended some of your shows, as well.”

Now a grin spread on my face. “Really? Well, that’s just perfect. Gotta protect my fans.”

Camille snorted and whispered, “Yeah, what few there are.” So, not entirely out of the doghouse then.

But Saltston wasn’t done yet. She reached to a small stack of cards on the living room table, picking one up along with a pen. Then she wrote something on the back, handing me the card.

I took it, looking closer. It was a business card with her phone number and e-mail. And she’d written another phone number on the back in neat, precise writing.

“My business and private number. In case you need some legal representation, or just someone to reminisce about the good old times,” she said with a smile that I was all too familiar with.

She… she’s hitting on me!? I’d come here to interrogate her, which would’ve included applying a lot of psychological pressure, if needed. And now I had not only saved her life – making me the hero of the evening, it seemed – but I was basically getting asked out on a date!?

My face must’ve been a sight to see (though the women probably thought I was dumbfounded for other reasons than the ones I was  concerned with), because Saltston and Camille started to giggle, and Vek gave her own, bleating rendition of the same.

I felt a slight blush begin to creep into my cheeks, which I immediately crushed to retain some dignity. Then I put the card into my breast pocket. “I’ll keep that in mind, ma’am,” I said, keeping my voice and face level. Then I looked at Vek. “A word, please?”

She nodded, retrieving her snakes (the boy had fallen asleep… I’d paid him little attention, but it was strange that he’d been so quiet and disinterested the whole time) and wishing Saltston a good night. I followed suit, earning another rather familiar smile. I did my best to be charming without seeming too inviting (I wasn’t sure I was ready for dating again).

***

Vek, Camille and I waited outside as we heard the sirens approach. I took the chance to look them up and down, while Vek talked to someone on her smartphone.

Their costumes looked as pristine as ever, though that didn’t say much when one considered Vek’s power. But there were signs of wear and tear – Camille’s hair was dishevelled, her make-up smudged and she was slightly favouring her left leg. Vek was sporting a few patches of singed fur, and her stance wasn’t quite as self-confident as usual.

“What has been going on today? This should’ve drawn a far bigger response,” I said, making sure that I didn’t sound accusatory, only curious. “Not just the two of you. No offense.”

Camille shot me a quick dirty look, but then she went back to being pensive. So weird.

Vek seemed… chagrined (I was definitely putting goat faces far up on my list of annoying mutations). “This night has been insane. Seven different events that required our deployment, not counting this one and the one the rest of our team had to address while this here went on. Three of those seven involved metahumans in some way, one a group of mercenaries equipped by a Gadgeteer and two more with normal criminals wielding heavy ordnance.”

I whistled. “Wow, that’s… unusual, unless things changed far, far more than I thought. Add to that that big brawl I drove into yesterday…”

She nodded. “Something is up. It might be… well, him returning.” Camille flinched, her body tensing up. I saw a trickle of blood run down from her lip, where she bit too strongly into it.

I nodded right back, making sure to keep my face neutral. It would not be favourable to tip the Good Guys off to my plans, and I couldn’t be sure that Vek or Camille didn’t have some means to analyse tells beyond the usual (their specific power sets were not public).

Vek stomped in place with one hoof, giving me an insecure look. I raised an eyebrow in a questioning gesture. She opened her mouth to say something, then stopped for a moment, but I just waited.

“We’re short our heavy hitter, with Chayot out of commission,” she said, making both Camille and me flinch. I still remembered just how tired Hennessy had looked after the brawl. “And we’re looking at some massive threat sources, if our reports of the Ascendant’s allies are correct. Nevermind that we’ve been tipped off that the Matriarch seems to be making some inquiries in his direction.”

Oh no, I hope they’re not going to preemptively attack Elouise because she’s been trying to fulfill my request. I’d rather not have to break up a fight between at least one of my daughters and the heroes… or worse, my two daughters who didn’t know about each other yet.

Another thing to worry about.

“I can guess where this is going. You need another heavy hitter. And with Chayot on leave, I am most likely the most powerful combat meta in the entire state,” I said calmly.

She nodded. “I am sorry that we have to ask this of you, after all you’ve gone through,” she said, her snake-arms jerking nervously (I was studying her closely, in order to figure out her tells).

But her words made me stop for a moment. If they’ve been briefed on the last few years… that might explain Camille’s change in behaviour. And who knew how it might influence Tamara or Hennessy?

I sighed. I really didn’t want to play hero any more than I had to, but… It’s my fault Hennessy is in that state. Nevermind that she might feel obligated to return to the field if things get too bad.

No matter what else was going on, I wanted to keep her safe. That meant picking up the slack. So I sighed, and I nodded. “Alright. You have my phone number. Call me in case of an emergency – but only an emergency, please. I have some time critical business to take care of, as well.”

Camille looked honestly surprised when I agreed, and I gave her a quick smile that caused her to frown at me, her eyes half angry and half confused.

Vek was less ambivalent. She simply grinned from ear to ear, her teeth huge and yellow. “Thank you very much, Aap Oordra. It is appreciated.” She held out one snake-arm, and I shook hands with her.

Five minutes later, the police had arrived and I left them to take care of business. It was time to hunt down Brimstone and Smelly.

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B011.3 Monkey Family

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The street, and the house, came into view quickly – since I had the monkey (mostly) up to keep myself pristine, I poured on the speed, leaping across a block or two at a time. Thanks to its night vision, I could make out the good spots to land without causing any damage.

When I got closer to the house – in mid-leap towards it, aiming to land in front of the door – I was thankful for it for another reason, because I just barely saw someone enter the house, the door falling closed behind them.

That doesn’t bode well. I could think of three or four possible explanations for that, and none of them were likely to support my plan.

“Even the best-laid plan rarely survives contact with reality. Always be ready to adapt… and to exploit the chances the world offers you.”

Fuck you, Journeyman, I thought angrily as I landed near the house. You just had to put me in mind of him. I was usually good about keeping the memories down, but Journeyman had knocked the padlock loose with that last fucking advice. Knowing him, it was deliberate. I bet he got the Stone Lecture, too, from someone.

No time. Focus. Focus. There’s trouble afoot. I approached the door – it hadn’t been closed entirely – and snuck in, drawing the monkey closer to my body to avoid causing damage. Immediately, I could smell two strangers inside, as well as the lawyer and her son. I could also smell… brimstone?

Metahumans. I let the monkey swell again, taking full shape around me as I passed a huge mirror on the wall, taking a look at myself. Blue fur so dark it looked black covered me from my head to my ankles. A long tail lashed behind me (I had to be careful not to casually crush the furniture and building), covered in the same fur. My hands were jet black, large and long-fingered, with even darker, long nails. Same for my bare feet. My face… frankly, my face was the stuff of nightmares. A monkey’s face, jet black with big, blood-red eyes – the sclera black as a pit – and teeth as black as the nails. What was most unnerving, I thought, was that, unless I made a conscious effort (or went into a rage), the face was perfectly solemn… noble, even. The black horns that grew out of the sides of my head, curving backwards, looked almost like a crown, when I was upright and calm.

The two metahumans had ascended the stairs by the time I reached the bottom of them, and I could hear them approach the master bedroom – as if they knew where to go. I could sniff out a few more details – both of them were female, one smelling strongly of brimstone. The other one’s smell was… weird. Unlike anything I’d smelled before. Neither of them was part of the team I’d taken out earlier on.

Did the hit squad report to someone to organise this? No, they didn’t know who their employer was, or whom to report to apart from Mrs Saltston. I started sneaking up the stairs. They didn’t seem to have any enhanced senses like mine, or they would have noticed me already, but there was no reason to be careless. Whoever their employer may be, he or she must have organised this as soon as he heard of the hit squad’s failure… or perhaps even beforehand.

That actually made me angrier than the attempt on my life had. Who was this person? What were they even thinking? Why come after me, why go after an agent, when you had to fear reprisal from the Syndicate?

Or was this an internal matter? Someone from within the Syndicate? I didn’t know. Hell, I didn’t even know the current line-up of the Five. Kraquok would be on it, of course (I wasn’t sure if he could be killed and after almost a century, I doubted that he’d be interested in retirement) and I’d find it more believable that DiL turned into a philanthropist than that anyone took the Dowager out of the game.

Either way, though, I was in trouble. This might be people from the Syndicate, in which case I’d be pissing their superiors off by taking them down – or they were people who weren’t afraid of it. Meaning they either had one of the other big organisations to back them (scary thought – some of them made the Syndicate look like a freaking charity) or they were complete morons. I was hoping for complete morons. Or at least oblivious to what was really going on.

I reached the top of the stairs just as they reached the bedroom door, and saw that they apparently liked their traditional outfits – all skintight black faux-leather (it didn’t smell real). The one who smelled of brimstone wore a catsuit that left her arms bare up to her shoulders – and they were apparently made of volcanic rock, covered in cracks and holes that burned with faint embers. Some manner of pyrokinesis perhaps. Or worse, lava generation. I hated fighting people who could make or summon lava. Fortunately, the petrification didn’t seem to reach beyond her shoulders – there were thin strips of pale white skin visible between the rock and her leather-like suit. Might be she wasn’t any tougher than normal. I could also tell that she wasn’t wearing a helmet or anything, and just had dark brown hair tied into a tight bun.

The other one wore a catsuit made of the same material, only it covered her from head to toe, it seemed, leaving nothing (visible from behind) uncovered – but tight enough to show off a build that suggested physical enhancements. Plus, that weird, weird smell of hers.

Looks suggest physical enhancements. Probably at least one other power. I should take them both down quickly, preferably remove them from the premises with the same attack.

Which meant sneaking up and, preferably, tackling them out of the house, even through a wall or two. I was confident that I could take anything they could dish out for at least long enough to get them away from the civilians. But I wasn’t quite sure where the best place to fight would be – I hadn’t scouted the surroundings in anticipation of a battle.

No use. Sneak, wait for the right moment, remove them from the premises. Figure the rest out on the fly.

I moved closer as they entered the bedroom, creeping up on them.

The moment the weirdly smelling woman stepped into the room, there was a loud roar and a flash of light and she flew out of sight, the sound of a heavy crash indicating that she’d impacted the wall. I smelled gunpowder.

“I hate jobs like this,” murmured Brimstone as her arms began to glow brighter from within.

That’s my cue. I didn’t know what had happened to the other woman, but my money was on them having tripped the alarm and the lady of the house having more than just the one weapon I’d seen in her office. Nevertheless, unless she was secretly a metahuman herself, I wouldn’t give her much chance against two super-powered assassins.

I bellowed out loud, my shout loud enough to crack a mirror that hung on the wall nearby and kicked off the ground at the same time, vaulting towards the flinching assassin.

She made a startled sound somewhere between a scream and a gasp as I tackled her through the open door. I pushed on even while I sped up my senses, to take a look around the room.

Smelly had been hit hard – a good part of the left side of her costume was gone, at the height of her torso, and the skin beneath was bleeding – though the wounds looked shallow. Still, if she’d been a normal human, or a less tough meta, she’d probably be dead.

I took another step, turning my head. Mrs Saltston was standing with her back to the wardrobe, holding a rather flimsy-looking shotgun in her hands. I’d spent enough time around Gadgeteers to spot the telltale signs of a handcrafted Gadget, which would explain how she’d taken Smelly Girl down.

Perhaps it is fortunate that I didn’t have to enact my plan – God knows what else she might be packing.

Since I couldn’t see the boy, I assumed he was hiding in the wardrobe, and decided to follow my original plan to remove the assassins from the premises.

Lashing out with my tail, I grabbed the downed Smelly by her waist and charged on, straight through and out the window.

“Grab your boy and get out!” I shouted as we left the room.

“Fucker! What the hell!” Brimstone cursed and her arms burst into flames. Luckily, they weren’t particularly hot and didn’t even burn my (copious amounts of) hair – but I did feel the heat, which told me all I needed to know; best to avoid a direct hit.

Landing on the lawn, I threw her across the yard and into a huge tree, her body impacting it horizontally. This time, she did scream, but it cut off when I threw her compatriot to slam into her midsection.

“Don’t stop. Attack until they’re completely neutralised as a threat.”

I stopped my attack, sitting on my haunches, staring at them. I really ought to just take them down, but… I’d rather end this without any further fighting, to be honest. I wasn’t in the mood.

The two of them fell off the tree in a way I might have found comical if I wasn’t feeling so morose, but quickly jumped up to face me again. Brimstone’s arms lit up, but she didn’t attack immediately, instead waiting for her friend to get up as well.

Smelly seemed quite stunned, though I didn’t know whether it was because she’d been shot by whatever that gun was, or because she’d been thrown hard enough into her friend to put a few cracks into the old tree. Perhaps both.

Interesting. I would’ve pegged Brimstone as less tough than her friend, yet the impact doesn’t seem to have done much more than piss her off.

“This is a one-time offer,” I growled, letting the monkey slip into my voice to sound more intimidating than usual. “Run now. You can’t fight me, and even if you thought it might work, the authorities won’t be too far away in a neighborhood like this.” I finished, then just waited, staring stoically at them.

After a few heartbeats, they nodded and left, vaulting over the fence to leave.

I smirked to myself – I’d memorised their scents. It wouldn’t be too hard to track them down later on.

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Brennus Files 07: Legacy of Heroes

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Chevalier

The name of Chevalier has been passed down almost since the beginning of superheroes, and is strongly associated with knightly ideals and a history of self-sacrifice.

The original Chevalier was one of the first and definitely the most beloved hero of France. His true identity has never been made public, as he believed that he should be more symbol than man to the people. In that tradition, no Chevalier’s name has ever been released to the public.

As a consequence of this practice, there is little to be said about the bearers apart from their caped lifes.

The original Chevalier first appeared in 1924, taking down a human trafficking ring based in Paris. He was wearing full plate armor and wielded a sword and a shield with a cross and the fleur-de-lys in gold. His power allowed him to draw foes – and only foes – into a pocket dimensions, so that they may fight one-on-one (or one-on-two, three, four… he was never shy about taking on bad odds). While he was generally stronger and tougher than normal, his powers were further jacked up within said pocket dimension, making him nigh-invincible within it (at least against the normal criminal – nowadays, he’d probably just be an average cape, if one only takes raw power into account). Since he couldn’t take allies into these ‘battlefields’, and he preferred not to endanger others, he mostly worked alone, further feeding the mystery around the character.
Unlike many early superheroes, Chevalier ascribed to a strict no-kill policy – there is only one known case where he fought with lethal intent.
He met his end during Weisswald’s invasion of France. The French army and their superheroes were not prepared, and were caught off-guard when Weisswald attacked them personally, along with his strongest fighters – a small army of metahumans, nearly thirty in number; an unimaginable force, at that time. In a desperate attempt to stall them and buy his allies time to evacuate the Northeastern part of France, as well as regroup and fortify, Chevalier drew the entire attacking force of metahumans into his pocket dimension, including Weisswald himself.
There is no record of the fight within, but he managed to hold out for five days, taking down ten of his enemies, including being the first person to land a hit on Weisswald (he retained a scar on his left cheek for the rest of his life).
His sacrifice allowed the French superheroes and soldiers to hold off Weisswald’s mundane army while the civilians were being evacuated.

Afterwards, Weisswald proved to be so impressed by his deed that he not only returned the Chevalier’s corpse to the French, but also declared a two-day armistice to allow for a proper hero’s burial (though he also used those two days to regroup his troops and prepare an even more brutal assault). During said speech, Weisswald spoke of ‘her sacrifice’, revealing to the world that Chevalier had actually been a woman (she later became a feminist icon nearly on par with Lady Light, and eclipsing her in France).

Later on, Weisswald declared her gravesite off-limits for his troops, provided it wasn’t used for military purposes. As such, it became a civilian shelter, where French nationals went to escape Weisswald’s camps. It has been estimated that more than five thousand people survived the war solely because of said shelter.

To this day, the seven days that Chevalier bought the French army are considered national holidays, during which girls dress as knights, or just generally in men’s clothing.

Chevalier II: The original Chevalier’s ‘squire’, Ecuyer, took up her name during her burial, taking an oath to defend her ideals until the day he died – which he did, years later, during an ill-fated attack on Berlin, an attempt to decapacitate the enemy warmachine. When the attack was proven futile, the Chevalier once again laid down his life, covering the retreat of his allies against Weisswald’s praetorian guard. His corpse, too, was returned to France (what little of it remained at the time).
His power allowed him to make any inanimate object he was in contact with indestructible and also incredibly easy to handle for himself, while retaining its actual weight. As such, he wielded a full-plate armor and a huge sword larger than himself, wielding them as if they were feather-weights. He bore the cross-and-fleur-de-lys on his sword, engraved into the blade.

Chevalier III: This man, too, was the squire of his predecessor and took up his mantle. He, too, fell in the fight against Weisswald during the closing years of the war, dying in the same battle that claimed Brightchild’s life, fighting and killing the Sturmwaffe, one of Weisswald’s top fighters, at the cost of his own life.
He was one of the early monstrous metahumans, a gryphon-like man with enhanced strength and toughness, winged flight and a piercing scream that could disorient enemies without harming allies. He bore the Chevalier’s emblem on a tabard, as he eschewed armor.

Chevalier IV: After the war ended, many argued that it might be best to put the name of Chevalier to rest along with it, keeping the legacy unspoiled. However, just three years later, a young man – half a child – took up the name on his own, the first Chevalier to be completely unrelated to the original. After two years, the public relented and accepted him as the new Chevalier, continuing the legacy. He served faithfully until he vanished in nineteen-sixty-nine, never to be heard from again.
Unlike the previous Chevaliers, the fourth had less physical powers, possessing an eclectic mix of minor powers that worked together to make him an extremely capable team leader (and a competent enough fighter on his own, though not to the level of his predecessors). He could make allies braver, more confident, synchronising them to let them work better together; he enhanced their physical capacity in minor ways, had a kind of ‘battlefield perception’ and a very powerful danger sense.
He wore the emblem on his cape.

Chevalier V: Also known as Le Bleu for his blue armor, this man took up the cape after the fourth disappeared and served faithfully and exceptionally for two decades, longer than any other Chevalier, until he was killed by a Spiteborn Blossom in a great effort to destroy an Acre that had been hidden and grown beneath Paris. He took his foe down with him, initiating the collapse of the Acre with his last strike.
Returning to the more martial roots of the cape, the fifth had a powerful, though short-ranged hydrokinesis, fighting with an afterimage made of water that he drew from to strike his opponents and defend against attacks. He could move at incredibly speeds when completely submerged in water, as well as regenerate almost any damage within seconds.
His blue armor bore the emblem on its back.

Chevalier VI: The sixth is generally considered to be the weirdest bearer of the title – more a jester than a knight, he spent his time off the job as a stand-up comedian (in full costume), filling entire sports arenas with adoring fans. As such, many called him the Laughing Knight, and he bore that name with great pride.
He served his country for five years, until he was killed in battle with the Dark in nineteen-eighty-six.
The sixth’s power made him very nearly immortal – no matter how much damage he took, he’d just ‘snap back’ instantly, completely pristine and unharmed, and go on fighting. He also had access to what he called his ‘Swordspace’, an extradimensional pocket from which he could draw a variety of weapons (usually swords and hammers) which were imbued with a variety of effects (usually enhanced striking power and some manner of elemental manipulation).
He bore the emblem on his breastplate and back.

Chevalier VII: The Quiet One, this Chevalier never spoke a word anyone heard. He did his duty with little fanfare, until he died in nineteen-ninety while battling DiL.
His power allowed him to cancel out all other powers within a hundred feet of himself, as well as dampening sounds, and he possessed some enhanced toughness and speed. He fought with a sword-shaped taser (and a real sword for backup), as well as a shield which bore the Chevalier’s emblem.

Chevalier VIII: It took four years after the fall of the Quiet One to choose a new Chevalier. This one often commented on how he felt unworthy of his title, but that someone had to be the Chevalier, and he’d hold the mantle until someone truly worthy was found.
Despite his lackluster self-confidence, the eighth more than lived up to the title, keeping the good name of the Chevalier going until nineteen-ninety-seven, when the Hannibal Storm crossed the Alps and he plunged into it, trying to find a way to shut it down – though he failed, and paid for it with his life.
The Eighth’s power was a kind of adaptive enhancement – his power could enhance his strength, speed, toughness, perception and recovery to varying degrees, distributing a set amount of power among these attributes. He had no conscious control over it. He fought in a fullbody armor that was styled like traditional knight’s armor and wielded a sword and shield with the emblem.

Chevalier IX: The Shining Knight, the ninth Chevalier took up the mantle during a difficult period in France when no less than three S-Class threats were raging through the region – the Hannibal Storm that slew his predecessor, a new Spiteborn Acre beneath Strasbourg and a mad ‘King’ with an army of orcs trying to take over Paris.
His performance was more than exemplary, as he slew the Orc King, supported the destruction of the Acre and was instrumental in the ultimate defeat and capture of the Hannibal Storm. He continued to serve his country for nearly a decade, until he was caught up in the London Nightmare during a vacation of his, dying in battle against Heretic and Hemming. France declared three days of national grief in his honor, and though his corpse was never recovered, he received a hero’s burial.
The Ninth’s power allowed him to declare one enemy, and gain powers suited to challenging that one enemy on equal grounds. Unfortunately, he wasn’t capable of ‘targeting’ DiL with this ability.
He bore the emblem on his chest, wearing a white-and-gold skinsuit styled to evoke the image of armor, and a huge cape.

Chevalier X: The Ninth left even larger shoes to fill than usual for the mantle, and the tenth never really lived up to this ideal. He wasn’t a bad hero, but he never really did anything of as much note as his predecessors, though he himself never seemed to mind. He fell in twenty-oh-ten when he supported the American heroes in their campaign against the Living Trinity.
His power allowed him to grow into a giant form, with a proportional increase in toughness and strength, with an exceptional regenerative ability during the process of shrinking down (as his wounds would shrink exponentially faster than the rest of him, leaving him with only minor damage. His sword and shield would grow with him, becoming far more durable as well as recovering damage when shrunk down.
He bore the emblem on his shield.

Chevalier XI: Also known as ‘the Blackguard’, the eleventh Chevalier is so far the only known scion of the name who betrayed its ideals, turning to villainy a year after he took up the mantle. He has yet to be brought down…
His power makes him an exceptionally dangerous and vicious combatant. He can absorb any material he touches – including other humans – to shore up damage, becoming tougher, stronger and adding weapons to his form. He becomes even more dangerous when he manages to use it on a metahuman, as he temporarily gains their powers on top of his own. Fortunately, the effect is not permanent, as his power slowly breaks down the absorbed material, until he is fully human and physically himself again. As such, he has to keep absorbing material to retain his strength and toughness.
He used to form the emblem on some part of his body, depending on what material he had currently absorbed.

Chevalier XII: There have been several aspirants to this title, but no one has been able to bring down the Blackguard yet – they were all either killed or driven off. France is still waiting for a new hero to come and reclaim the name and symbol of her most beloved scion.

Doc Feral and the Feral Family

The original Doc Feral, Bruce Bransteel, was one of the pre-eminent contrivers of the pre-WWII era, an ‘adventurer scientist’ who travelled all across the world in his pursuit of justice. His power revolved around a secret ‘formula’ which could bestow a variety of powers to anyone who drank it – though with side-effects if used by anyone other than Doc Feral himself.

Being of exceptional charisma, the self-declared Doctor (he didn’t actually hold an academic title) gathered a faithful following of fellow adventurers, mostly teenagers, one of whom manifested as a contriver as well, with a nearly identical technique (he used injections instead of ingested formulas).

The original Doc Feral became one of the founding members of the Shining Guardians, and his successors have held up said tradition. Ever since world war one, the Feral Family (as this group is known) has always included more than one contriver, of whom the most capable one would bear the title of Doc Feral, until he or she either died, passed it on or lost the title to an majority vote from the other members. Many of the older bearers of the title are still alive and support the younger generation in various ways.

The family is well-known for its reliance on heterodyning – as all members are contrivers, and all of them ascribe to some variation of the power formula, they usually operate by synchronising similar powers (such as having a squad of blasters coordinate to fuse their powers into something greater. Though most members are rather weak individually, the family as a whole can be considered an A-Class combatant.

Currently, the twenty-sixth Doc Feral is leading the family as they act as the leaders of the North American division of the United Heroes. Also known as the ‘Feral Mom’ (a nickname she quite despises), she relies on a specialised subset of the formula that induces physical changes, mainly various form of animal shapes with a variety of powers.

Amaterasu

Asuka Kagurasaki was just fourteen years old when she married the son of the Japanese emperor – only to see him brutally murdered by Weisswald, two years later.

She manifested on the spot, just as Weisswald was preparing to kill her. It was only due to her inexperience and panic that he survived her opening strike, which incinerated his left arm and killed two members of his praetorian guard before they even realised there was something wrong.

It is generally agreed that, had Asuka had any prior combat training, the terror of Weisswald could have been stopped right then and there. Even so, he was driven off, and then had to flee the country entirely when Lady Light and the Dark joined forces with Amaterasu.

Unfortunately, she was unwilling to actually leave her country in order to pursue Weisswald, preferring to stay behind and pacify it, bringing down the agents left behind by the Tyrant as well as uppity criminal elements. Though she did then join the war effort against Weisswald, he had made plans for her by then, and was capable of weathering her assault, even though no one ever found a way to efficiently counter her power (apart from staying out of its range).

Initially, it was assumed that Amaterasus’ power was a crude pyrokinesis – the ability to incinerate anything within roughly a hundred and sixty feet of her from the inside out. She also had an extra sense that allowed her to perceive every exertion of force within said range – such as the force exerted by muscles within a human body, or by a travelling projectile. As such, anyone who stood within her range lived and died upon her whim – she could reach into and burn even the strongest metahuman. And she herself was effectively immune to any and all physical attacks.

Later it turned out that her power was far more than just that – it was more comparable to a very crude telekinesis. The incineration was achieved by an undirected burst of telekinesis, generated within the target, tearing their bodies apart while setting them ablaze with the heat of the friction. Once she learned to direct this burst, she could use it to move objects along straight lines at very great speeds – including herself. She could effectively turn any solid matter (liquids could only be detonated on the spot) into a lethal projectile, allowing her to attack targets far outside her range, as well as fight targets within it with less lethal means than her standard attack.

Amaterasu quickly gained fame across the world, and even the Royal Family accepted her as a full member, despite her not having carried out any heirs to the throne and her husband being dead – but she was simply too powerful to ignore, and frankly far too important.

Despite Japan’s push to unify and standardise all metahumans as Sentais, Amaterasu was allowed to retain an independent identity, partly due to her personal importance and partly because she styled herself in a traditional manner (she wore rich traditional robes styled to evoke a priestly look). This would become part of her legacy, later on (more on that later).

Asuka fought for the prosperity and safety of her country until nineteen-sixty-nine, when she was enthralled by her own son from her second marriage and forced to first kill her three daughters, then herself. Afterwards, her husband tracked down and killed their son, before committing ritual suicide, stating grief over the loss of his family and shame over the monster his son had become as his reasons, thus ending the story of Japan’s greatest heroine.

But she would not be forgotten, as Japan declared her a national hero and an example for all to follow. In her memory, they have made a special exception in the Sentai system, allowing their most exceptional heroes to discard the uniform of the Sentai in favour of more personalised (though preferably traditionally inspired) garb and names. These elite few are considered Japan’s answer to the Shining Guardians.

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B011.2 Monkey Family

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I leapt through Chicago, even though running would have been faster (collateral damage would have been a major issue, though), towards the lawyer’s office. I’d gotten the address out of my would-be assassins, after I’d threatened them with some rather creative uses of my power, and before I stripped them naked and sent them off. The lawyer who worked there doubled as an agent for supervillains, which wasn’t as rare as one might think – as a lawyer, she could simply funnel her agent work through her practice, claiming confidentiality and such to keep both her clients and herself protected. And if someone she worked with was captured, she could double as a reliable lawyer. And that didn’t even take into account the fact that good, reliable agents were even rarer than good, reliable lawyers, and according to the leader of the assassins, this one was one of the most well-regarded ones in Chicago, in both respects.

Quite the cozy setup, really. I wondered how she’d gotten past the initial issues of setting up both a law practice and making the necessary contacts in the underworld to act as an agent. She might have just inherited one or both sides, though. I put those thoughts out of my mind, then, and sped up a bit – I’d rather be back in bed sooner rather than later.

Strangely enough, the address led me to one of the finer residential areas of Chicago. White picket fences, large front- and backyards and expensive cars dominated the scenery. What kind of agent sets up shop in a place like this? I was getting a sneaking suspicion here…

When I landed in front of the address, said suspicion was sadly confirmed. She set up her practice in her own home!? It was quite… incongruous. She had a cheery mailbox, apparently made by a child, with a tall, blonde stick figure in green clothes holding the hand of a shorter blonde stick figure. The words ‘The Saltstons‘ were written in bright, cheery letters on the box.

Well, fuck. I had planned to break into her practice, go through her files. Maybe question her, if she was still there at this time of night (agents often led a nocturnal life). But I wasn’t just going to break into a family’s home. Much less one with a child living in it.

A boy and his mother, huh? I thought, looking closer at the mailbox. The thought made me feel… old. Tired. I wondered why the boy’s father wasn’t on the box. The monkey twitched, half in murderous anger and half in… less comfortable feelings. It took me a few moments to pull myself back together, and I punctuated them by running my fingers through my hair, returning it to some semblance of order (being clean and orderly made it easier to resist the monkey, all things considered).

I had a difficult decision to make. If I didn’t investigate this quickly, I risked the lawyer being tipped off and destroying her files, perhaps even leaving the city… though her having a child meant that she was less likely to go for that option. Maybe. She might be a horrid mother, who knew?

It does look rather cheerful, though, I thought as I looked at the painting on the mailbox, which was illuminated by one of the streetlights. The woman and the boy had both smiles painted on their faces, the boy even a wide grin. Those weren’t the pictures made by an unhappy child.

There wasn’t really a choice here, was there? I wasn’t going to harm a mother in front of her son. I turned away to leave, determined to follow this lead during the day, when she was more likely to be alone, the boy at school or at a friend’s place.

“It is a good thing, to have a conscience,” the words of my father spoke, old memories rising up unbidden. “Most everyone has one, and it is exceedingly hard to manipulate something you do not comprehend. A true master of the human mind is never a psychopath, for they do not understand many of the basic impulses that control humans.”

I shivered, frozen in midstep. I remembered that lesson. One of the earliest ones he’d given me, after my world broke down.

“But one must also master their conscience. It is good to let it guide you. It is never good to let it control you. Never let it make you hesitate – hesitation is always easy, rarely useful. Don’t let it make you neglect a beneficial course of action.”

“Fuck you, dad.” I spat the words, but there was no real venom in my voice. Perhaps because I knew he was right. Hell, I could imagine what he would say if he saw me now, including his precise tone of voice. “This woman is responsible for an attempt on your life. She deserves no more mercy than she showed you when she set a hit squad on you.” The monkey growled deep inside me, agreeing strongly with that line of thought. I could feel its need to lash out at those who threatened me, its need to hurt, to kill.

Perhaps she didn’t know the details of the orders she passed along, I thought, trying to sway myself.

“She knew she was passing on orders from her client to a group of mercenary assassins. Even if she didn’t know who the specific target was, she still gave implicit approval. And besides, she is your only link to whoever is behind this; unless you find them and neutralise the threat, there will be more attmepts,” my father’s voice in my head cut through my feeble arguments.

Maybe they lied. Maybe she’s not connected to this at all.

“I taught you better than that. You read them. You know they said the truth.”

I took a deep breath, calming myself. What did it say about me, that I had mental arguments with the memory of my father?

Worse, what did it say about me that he usually won?

Squaring my shoulders, I approached the house to break in and take a look around.

“Step one, son, is to know your mark.”

Time to bust out some of the old protocols.

 

* * *

 

I approached the house carefully, keeping an eye out for its security systems. I didn’t have any equipment with me, so I tapped the monkey’s night vision. It revealed some high quality security, but nothing I couldn’t deal with.

It also revealed the sign that advertised Mrs Saltson’s practice. Sara J. Saltson, Attorney At Law, followed by a phone number.

Soon enough, I was inside – she had some good security, modern, expensive stuff, but I’d spent more than a dozen years breaking into and out of high-security government facilities – and I snuck through the house, taking everything in.

The hallway beyond the front door was rather short. To the right was the door to her law office. I assumed the door on the left led to her actual home. Her office, first. Quickly, but thoroughly.

The office was big. A converted living room, probably. A large window span the entire length of the wall opposing the door, though it was currently darkened by the shutters being closed. There were was a huge, antique bookshelf on the righthand wall, reaching from one corner to the next, and it was filled to the brim in neatly arranged books. A quick look over it revealed that they were all used books – she’d read all of them, I was certain. Or at least skimmed through most and read some others.

The lefthand wall held a huge flatscreen television in its center, where it could easily be seen from both her desk and the seats in front of it. It was even mounted on a small contraption that allowed for it swing out towards the desk, for more comfortable viewing. There was also a liquor cabinet to the right of the screen, in easy reach of the desk. Stocked with an expensive but rarely tapped selection of alcohol.

The desk itself was antique, and looked massive enough to stop a charging brick. It was made of nearly black mahagoni wood, appearing to be a nearly solid block of wood from the front, with some subtle carvings of stylised roses that appealed to the eye but didn’t detract from its imposing design. The other side was covered in drawers.

I skimmed through them. Most were locked, most likely containing her confidential files, but the two topmost ones were not. The left one contained a small, unusual-looking handgun – something handcrafted, perhaps by a gadgeteer; a weapon to defend yourself against superpowered clients, perhaps, who got too aggressive.

The right one was empty save for a handmade good-luck-charm (several colourful ribbons tied in a four-leaf-clover shape) and a picture of a grinning boy with blonde hair and bright grey eyes. He couldn’t be more than nine years old. The photograph looked new, too.

Curious, that she wouldn’t have it framed and on her desk. I filed that thought away as I worked through the rest of the desk. It told me a few interesting things.

Now, the mark herself. I left the office after I made sure everything looked exactly how it had been before I’d entered, and broke into the house proper. I quickly took in the actual living room and the kitchen – all very neat, save for a lot of books that were lying everywhere in small, neat stacks. Lots of pictures everywhere, of the woman and her son. No father, no other family or friends.

Then I crept up the stairs. The second floor was not very interesting to me. The first room was just a closet, the second a bare-bones guest room that hadn’t seen any use in quite a while. Three more rooms, one on each side and one at the end of the hallway. I could hear soft breathing from behind the door at the end, so I tried the other two first.

One was an utterly decadent, huge bathroom. I mean, it looked like it belonged into a ritzy hotel, not a private home. The bath tub doubled as a hot tub, and it looked like it was used heavily, but kept rigorously clean.

The other room proved to be an (empty) boy’s bedroom. It was nicely furnished and brightly coloured, but it felt like it didn’t see much use. I wonder why…

I got my answer when I snuck into her bedroom. It was big, it was comfortable, and there were two people in the huge queen-sized bed. A woman and a boy, cuddled up beneath a thin blanket (the room was well-heated).

Ah crap. This would be so much easier if she was abusive, or neglectful, but from the way the two held onto each other, I could tell that there was a lot of adoration there.

A sigh escaped my lips. No use, man. You need this information. Your life might depend on it. And who knows whose else.

I studied the woman, briefly, then I left again, leaving the house without any evidence of my brief presence left behind.

It had taken me less than fifteen minutes to work through all of it.

 

* * *

 

I quickly returned to my house. I’d gotten enough out of my inspection, and now I had to prepare for the interrogation. I assuaged my conscience by telling it that the more thorough my preparations, the more expertly the actual dialogue, the less actual harm I would have to cause, be it physical (which, frankly, I wasn’t going to do) or mental (I’d rather avoid that, beyond the most basic stress and fear, if possible).

“Analyse your mark. Observe its home, its workplace, its appearance and behaviour”, my father’s voice whispered into my ear. “Do not look at the mask it wears. Its house will be different from its workplace because everyone wears a different mask to different occasions. But all masks are based on the same states of mind. Observe, analyse, compare. Determine the state of mind behind the mask.”

She was a strong woman. A single mother who blended her work and her taking care of her son, taking the risk of having her practice in her own house so she’d always be near her boy. On the way back, I’d ascertained that the nearest elementary school was just down the street, less than ten minutes at a comfortable pace. No husband, no family close enough to warrant a picture in her house. No friends on the photographs, either, save for a single shot of her and a few other women in very expensive clothing. Friends, judging by the expressions and stances, the way they’d stood together – but her boy was the center of her life, without question.

It would have been easy to use the boy, to pressure her through him. My father would have recommended that I do it, subtly, carefully. Never breaking the Code, of course, but still using him (he himself rarely, if ever, had need of such crude methods).

I felt like throwing up just considering the option, and quickly dismissed it.

Instead, I was going to use a different approach. And that necessitated that I look… professional. Respectable. First came a thorough shower, a shave and the use of various products my daughter had apparently picked out for me (or had others pick out, who knew?) on my face and hair.

Afterwards, I looked for the suit I’d worn until recently – it was mostly fine, but visibly worn… Perhaps Elouise thought to provide me with a fitting suit. It would beat having to track down one of the special tailors that most likely still made a living providing quick costumes for capes and cowls. I don’t have that much time, anyway. I should finish this before the sun comes up.

I checked, and ‘lo and behold, I actually had three suits. I picked a particularly expensive-looking one (a dark maroon-coloured pair of pants, jacket and vest, with a black shirt to be worn beneath) and tried it on. It didn’t fit perfectly, but well enough for my purposes (I’d have to take it to a tailor some time, if I intended to keep using it), so I put on a pair of black socks and took a polished pair of black leather shoes (it appears to me that my daughter was going for a theme when she picked out my clothes) that were in a plastic bag, and which fit quite nicely. I should ask her where she got my measurements, I thought to myself as I adjusted my tie.

Once I was done, I checked my hair over once more, moved about a bit to get used to the shoes and pants, and left the house again.

Calling up the monkey’s skin to keep my hair and suit safe from dirt, the wind and anything else that may spoil my looks, I made my way to the Saltston home.

Time to get this show started.

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